CRISPR gene-editing could help feed future generations

Experts predict that another two billion people will inhabit the Earth by 2050, bringing the global population to 9.7 billion. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Current food production systems can’t keep up with today’s demand — more than ten percent of the world is undernourished — so how the hell are we going to feed our future?

The answer will likely lie in technology. And one of the most promising contributions comes from a gene-editing tool called CRISPR, which scientists can use to create crops that are more resilient to climate change and have higher yields.

A team of researchers from Purdue University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences recently demonstrated the potential of CRISPR in an intriguing new study. By making mutations in 13 genes, the scientists produced a crop of rice with 25-31 percent high yield. Without the aid of CRISPR, the crop would’ve required trial and error with millions of plants to reach a similar goal, according to the researchers.

To create the crop, the researchers used CRISPR to precisely snip out undesired genes that play a double role, increasing stress tolerance and suppressing growth. So although the crop had a higher yield, it was less resilient to environmental stress. Still, in field tests in Shanghai and on Hainan Island, China, the researchers found little impact to stress tolerance but significant gains in grain production.

“An important fact concerning CRISPR technology is its immediate applicability to agricultural problems,” Jian-Kang Zhu, a plant biologist at Purdue who led the study, told Digital Trends. Although much of the attention and investment surrounding CRISPR has been in medical research, Zhu pointed out that “the successful applicability of this incredible technology to medicine is much farther in the future.”

After all, plants and microbes aren’t entangled with the same bioethical concerns that keep scientists from performing certain animal studies. “We can make genetic crosses and clones with plants and we can discard our mistakes,” Zhu said. “Obviously [those are] not ethical pursuits in human biology.”

Moving forward, Zhu and his colleagues will use this same tool on “elite” strains of rice, with the hope that the production boosts transfer over. They also plan to apply their approach to different crops.

A paper detailing the study was published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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